The area around Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai is not very pedestrian friendly; certainly not a place to unnecessarily walk about. With snarled traffic most times, drivers intent on out-hooting each other, metro and overpass construction, decibel levels that render blood pressure medication useless and a stink that can curl up toenails, it is a wonder to see people up and about. I have no choice, I have to put in my hour of walking exercise, else metabolism in my system take very long stubborn naps.
I navigate another heap of rotting, stinking garbage, paying very careful attention for human or dog poop mounds; they can spring a nasty surprise on unsuspecting footwear. Immediately past this eyesore is a grimy Muslim restaurant with white-capped customers enjoying early morning spicy concoctions of eggs and potatoes and steamy tea. A teenager in filthy once-white waist perches over on a veranda edge tending to a boiling wok of bubbling grease with jaleebis sizzling in agony.
A mile up the road and I walk into slum India, a community of humans packed into ramshackle dwellings surrounded by garbage, grime and a peculiar foul smell that stays with me even as I walk faster, trying to escape it. There are flies that ignore frantic waves of my hands and sorry looking dogs that scavenge near an open nallah that runs along the tarred road I walk; I eye them cautiously, they have rabies written all over them, maybe? When I look up and around, swanky, tall glass buildings sprout all over, catching the glint of a raising sun; The Leela, Marriott, InterContinental, Sheraton…mocking my astonishment, at the fallacy I see.
I think I’ve had enough exercise and want to return to my hotel, a much modest Suba International, shower, have a luxuriously slow breakfast and a nap before heading to the airport and back home to Sanford when I walk into a sort of a maidan, a clearing. To one side is a pukka two-storied hut that stands isolated, in a midst of mountains of litter; newspapers, soda cans, plastic bottles, plastic bags and liners, metal cast-offs, auto and bicycle tires…even a rusting auto rickshaw, long dead. In between the house and trash heaps, sits a charpoy. A thickly bearded man wearing a Muslim cap sits on it, blows on a murky glass held by the tips of fingers, puckers his lips and takes a tentative sip; hot tea perhaps. Trios of chicken peck on the dirt near his feet and not too far away, a half naked toddler with an effusive runny nose plays with dirt.
I pause by the rotting rickshaw to observe the child, busy with a stick that s(he) is bent on interring into the dirt with very little success; frustrated, it begins wailing, there is instant reaction. Aree, aree, abhee kya hoowa, mai aye, mai aye… A young girl, hair covered with a dupatta, comes jogging from the house, carrying a large tub full of splashing water. She places it down, lifts up the toddler, places a series of ringing kisses on his face, removes the vest and immerses the now naked boy into the tub and begins a vigorous rub down with a bar of soap. I wish I had a camera; this would be an interesting shot. I sense a movement inside the rickshaw and nearly jump out from my skin in fright. A young boy, no more than ten, twelve, very dark, sits inside a tiny space grinning at me. We stare at each other, him grinning silly, I trying to steady a wayward heart. The boy juggles his eyebrows, Hello hero, show khalaas, soo rupee, holds out a palm. Astonished and somewhat amused, I turn around and start walking away but the boy is nimble as a monkey, out and blocking my way, palm held out. Show not pree, says he, in Bollywood fashion, ek soo rupee, dedo fast, fast.
Perplexed, I want to ask him why but a short sharp smack on his head sends him scrambling away. The man I had seen sitting drinking tea now stands in front of me, frowning. He is wearing a colorful lungi with a thin fading white kurta over it. Forgive him, sahib, he has lost his manners. Ever since carorpatti kutta tamaasha, Munna thinks he can extort money from strangers. Please ignore him, go in peace. Or perhaps I can offer you some tea?
I sit on the charpoy with Abdul Raheem and warily sip piping hot tea from a not-so-clean-looking glass, hoping all germs have been eliminated; I do not fancy a Mumbai belly on the long flight home. A bashful Zakeeya Bano, the young woman I saw cleaning up the toddler, her youngest brother, serves the tea. Zakeeya Bano and nimble Munna are Abdul’s children, two of nine from two wives, all living in that house behind me. Abdul is a scrap dealer, has been since moving to Mumbai from somewhere in UP. He was dirt poor when he first arrived in Mumbai, spent months living on streets with his first wife and two daughters, Zakeeya Bano one of them, the older one is married and lives in Malad slums with her family. Abdul was among the first ones to claim this piece of property as home, then a strip of marshland adjacent to Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
Nobody cared about recycling fourteen years ago; Abdul traded in newspapers, magazines and other paper products, scraped a living. Then suddenly, commodity prices took off faster than fastest jet planes Abdul had ever seen and recycling became fashionable, and profitable. He saw profits and competition escalate so everybody in the family joined in the business and he made money, got a good rishta for his oldest daughter, could afford the dowry for the boy from a decent family. With the savings, he expanded the business, acquired more land by paying off harassing police, sharks and other squatters. And he married, again.
Why, I ask. Abdul looks at me in surprise, frowns, strokes his bushy beard thoughtfully, as if I have asked him a profound question that needs contemplation. Then he smiles, revealing strong white teeth in between peppered whiskers. Arre Ali Mia, why not? I am a man, I have needs, no? He gives me a knowing wink but then his face sours. And I could afford it. Then… His second wife Shabnum Bano joins us, carrying a steel plate each of sweetmeats in assorted colors and savory concoction of fried daals, pea and cashew nuts; Abdul encourages me to take some but I politely decline. When I ask Abdul how he manages living with two wives and nine children in one house; his face darkens some more. Hmmmm, he says irritably, very difficult, that is why you don’t see the first one here…gone maike. He joins fingers of right hand and flaps them, yap yap, all day long, tongue never stops, saali troublemaker. I ran her off to her mother, let her go and yap all she wants there. She’ll be back soon enough, and eat my head again. I suppress an urge to laugh; Shabnum Bano has a smug look on her face.
Abdul, his family and residents of this slum are a worried lot however; their fortunes and lucks have taken a severe trouncing, dark thunderous clouds gather in the horizon and the future looks gloomy. Due to the fall in worldwide commodity prices, recyclables demand is down and prices almost halved. But not police haftas, these increase in tandem with price of daals, always soaring like those aircrafts taking off and landing, forcing a pause in conversation every few minutes. Slow business and police bribery is okay however, not the big anxiety; business has ups and downs, always, Abdul has survived worse times ago. The slum dwellers have been served eviction notice by GVK, the airport developer; they will have to move – in the very near future, perhaps within three months. Why? This entire area will be part of the new airport, a showcase for India to show to the world.
And what do they want to show us, the citizens of this community, asks Abdul. A less than 400 square foot apartment as compensation in some fancy high-rise coming up Allah knows where, when. For this, I had to bribe the government land department at Adheri ten thousand rupees to get a piece of paper affirming I live here. Ten thousand rupees! Can you believe the goondagheeri of our officials, Ali Mia? This is my house and my compound, which I bought and paid with my sweat to the Tamil land shark at exorbitant rates. Now, I have to bribe some haraami so that a piece of paper says it belongs to me. You have to go through this kind of goondagheeri back in Amrika, Ali Mia? I shake my head. Perhaps you can highlight our plight in Amrika? Talk to your Sarkaal? Tell them to urge the government of India not to rob us so much? I want to tell him there is nothing the US can do about his plight but remain quiet instead, it would be too much trouble and I am sure nothing I say will make him feel better.
What am I supposed to do in an apartment, hmmm? Will they let me sell scrap there? They say it will have a proper bathroom and a proper kitchen with gas connections, it will have 24-hour water supply…but I have to pay for it all. Have you seen the price of a gas cylinder bottle lately Ali Mia? The developer boasts that toilets will have shiny tiles in them. What for? Am I supposed to admire my bum’s reflection in them? Bah! Tiles indeed, for a few minutes, in company of filth and smell. I don’t need a tiled toilet for that, I go round the corner and do it there, in the large cesspit. No lines, no waiting. How will the nine of us fit in the toilet all at once, bolo? Want to see or use our toilet, Ali Mia? No tiles, but first class nevertheless, fresh air and lots of space… I must have visibly paled; there is hearty laughter from those gathered around us.
The heartiest laughter comes from Munna who has joined several others that now squat about the charpoy, come to see the pardesi from Amrika, perhaps make them famous and wealthy as well, like carorpatti kutta lot from a different not so distant slum? The group is all male with few dupatta clad women standing at a suitable distance, huddled with Shabnum Bano and Zakeeya Bano, gossiping and giggling, frequently glancing our way. Munna abruptly shuts up when he sees Abdul scowling at his overdone harsh laughter, shuffles away, the earlier whack on his head still on his mind perhaps. Attention on me fades; the group takes over discussing their imminent demise as a community, their future economic wellbeing and most critical, where and when the new apartments with tiled toilets will be available for occupancy.
After a few minutes listening to them, I get up to bid farewell, tell them I have a flight to catch later that afternoon. They are disappointed, but wag their heads in understanding and smile shyly as I shake hands around. Munna stands at a distance, bashful. I go to him and hug him, discreetly fold one soo rupee bill into his palm; he beams, radiates joy. Abdul protests, tells me not to reward the badmaash but relents because I insist. Shabnam Bano comes hurrying, a piece of green cloth fluttering on her fingers. She ties this on my right arm. It is for safety and good luck in my travels, from a shrine of a saint near her village in UP. They troop after me to the main road. Allah hafiz, they repeat several times as I board a rickshaw towards my hotel. I am late; I have a plane to catch.